Pickup on Houston Street

Killer B's: Sprawling retro of lesser-known noirs celebrates an ultra-gritty nihilism

A this late date, what we think about when we think about noir is often little more than a result of its commodification—a history that is itself a vast untold story. One of the hardiest myths, and the one most responsible for the category's deathless cool, pertains to the definition of noir as a B movie, the cheap programmer backing up the A on a double bill. With only a fraction of an A's studio control and budget, a B could afford to risk expressionism, nihilism, subtext, and other uncommercial indulgences. But noirs—never conceived of as such then, of course—were pervasive. Many of the longest-lasting classics were top-of-the-line A's, stuffed with expensive talent and stars: Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Gilda (1946), Out of the Past (1947), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Big Heat (1953), and so on. Do the polished surfaces and remarkable ur-scripts make these babies less "noir"? Hardly, by most sights, but AFI list approval does seem to rankle with the genre's seedy identity as we've come to understand it.

If so, were the other noirs, the authentic B's built for bottom billing, honed by renegade writers and directors too thorny for a corporate payroll, and assembled in Poverty Row sub-studios, the real deal? How to define a B, anyway—by budget, production circumstances, exhibition status, degree of dereliction? In Film Forum's belt-busting retro of generous double (sometimes triple) whammies, it's all of the above. We get genuine indies (1958's Thunder Road, with Robert Mitchum as a moonshiner vet motoring down Southern dirt roads; a slew of Anthony Mann's premier shadow-work for Reliance Pictures). We also get studio prod- uct like Mann's Lincoln-assassination revamp The Tall Target (1951) for MGM and Rudolph Maté's The Dark Past (1948) for Columbia, and scores of seething beauts manufactured by long-defunct production outfits (Globe, Eagle-Lion, King Bros., Samson, Parklane, etc.) and then distributed by the big boys (United Artists, RKO, Columbia). The net is thrown large enough to encompass, among four Samuel Fuller films, the Tokyo-set House of Bamboo (1952), which is un-noir enough to have been shot in color CinemaScope.

Taxicab confession: Side Street
photo: Film Forum/Photofest
Taxicab confession: Side Street

Details

B Noir
May 5 through June 15, Film Forum

See also:
  • Painting With Light
    Deep in the shadows of Film Forum's noir series
    by Elliott Stein
  • Have your definitions; there're more ultra-gritty, forgotten bad dreams here than the average noiriste can possibly tolerate in one spring, including key works of powerful mistrust by a platoon of HUAC blacklistees, including, among others, Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949), Bernhard Vorhaus's The Spiritualist (1948), Joseph Losey's neurotic remake of M (1951), and John Berry's He Ran All the Way (1949), the last, tragic film for McCarthy target John Garfield. The Communist witch hunt did a tidy job of politicizing what was already a bitterly proletariat school of narrative, and a thorough study of their intercourse waits to be written. Meanwhile, if we may realign along auteur lines, this series is a gift to 'philes yenning for Joseph H. Lewis's lesser-known films, as well as a refreshing statement on how much the world's favorite brand of postwar desperation owed to nobody's pet Richard Fleischer (six swift, mean films) and Anthony Mann, whose astonishing and tensely eloquent output is here represented by seven films (two co-directed), each a hymn to muscular hopelessness.

     
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